jump to navigation
  • Beggar for a Day June 18, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    A beggar being a chooser

    Beach has long been curious about the begging life and was fascinated to run across this article from 1889 about how difficult it was to make money in London by holding out your hand. A clearly middle class man took a bet with his friends, after dinner, and presumably after taking port, that he could make five shillings in a day as a beggar: that would be, according to the National Archives cash converter about fifteen pounds or twenty dollars. After looking for clothes that were ‘sufficiently dilapidated’, he set off into the city.

    Ragged, unkempt, with grizzly grey beard (purchased in Drury-lane), with a coat with one arm and half back, a hat without a crown, a tattered old boot one foot and the remnants of lawn-tennis shoe on the other, I made my first public appearance as a beggar. Sixpence was all the money the umpire  allowed me to take; unless I had five shillings more than that at midnight the bet was lost. A good supply of sandwiches and a small flask whisky were, however, stowed away in the lining of my much-torn coat. I had previously made up my mind as to the route I would take. In the morning I would make Piccadilly, Bond-street, and Mayfair the scenes of my labours; in the afternoon I would work Regent-street, and Oxford-street and any other places I thought likely resorts for the charitably disposed. My first essay was made at the corner of Piccadilly and Hamilton-place. Here I stood in mute entreaty, silently holding out my crownless hat – my hand being underneath to catch anything dropped into it – and presenting the most woe-begone appearance. Very little progress was made at this station, in three-quarters of an hour, although hundreds people had passed I had only taken in fivepence.

    At this point the beggar decides to actually ask for money.

    Wending my way into Park-lane I commenced to beseech alms from all the ladies passing to and fro in that fashionable thoroughfare. I walked alongside them short distances, telling a fearful story of starvation; and, during the two hours which I worked this method, coppers fell freely into my hand. An average of about one in every ten appeals was successful in producing something towards the necessary five shillings.

    The ‘beggar’ was a good actor.

    I was just about to desert this method and this locality when a little incident occurred which gave my funds quite a big lift. Espying a lady and gentleman walking towards Mount-street, I advanced close beside the latter and commenced supplications. He was a tall well-built man, and carried a thick Malacca walking cane. The close proximity of such a tattered disreputable creature as myself apparently being distasteful to him, he suddenly brought his heavy stick into position, as if it were a rifle with fixed bayonet, and gave a prod that sent me staggering into the roadway. Without attempting to steady myself, I deliberately and on purpose fell flat on back and lay there. Next instant I heard the lady accompany my assailant say, ‘Oh, how rough you are. You have hurt, the poor creature.’ I raised myself to a sitting posture, and tried to appear as sickly as possible. The two stepped out into the street to look at me, and the man inquired if I was hurt. Ashamed of the deception I was playing [but determined to win my bet and show the chaps what I was made of], I replied ‘Not much,’ and rose to my feet. He handed me a shilling telling me that I had no business begging in the streets, and that had if I been hurt it would have been my own fault.

    Tick tock.

    It was now nearly three o’clock, and I was getting weary of the role I was playing. There was still, however, a couple of shillings to be got before the wager was won. Entering a small bakery, I bought a penny roll, and then proceeded toward Regent-street. Arrived there, I sauntered about in front a confectioner’s shop until I saw two ladies coming towards me. Just when these must pass I placed the roll on the pavement, hid myself round the neighbouring corner, and awaited their approach. The instant they arrived at the spot where the bread lay I stepped forth from my hiding-place and as my eyes had just lit on it, I flung myself right in front of the two ladies, grabbed the roll from beneath their feet pretending to munch it. The ruse was successful. Murmuring something about the poor starved creature, one of ladies began to fumble in her purse, and finally bestowed sixpence on me. Several times I played this trick, always rescuing the roll (which I wished to appear as having been dropped by a baker’s boy) from beneath the foot of well-dressed ladies, and playing on their sympathies to such an extent that very many them thought me a fit object for their charity. Once I had to shift the scene of the maneuvers; for a burly, though good-natured member of the Metropolitan police, who must have been spectator of game, suddenly approached and said, ‘Look here, governor, it takes you a long time to eat that bit of bread. Just see if a little walk won’t improve your appetite. Off from here, now!’ I went. In several streets of Mayfair I repeated this ruse with varying success. Sometimes it would be denounced as a trick; at others I would be recommended to go the workhouse; and on one occasion, when I stooped at the feet of a nervous old lady to pick up the little loaf she screamed ‘Police!’

    He had it coming.

    An elderly lady, while getting out her carriage, espied me pretending to munch my roll, and, stopping in the doorway, searched for some time in her purse, finally with great dignity handing her footman a coin which I felt sure from her august manner and the time she had taken selecting it, must be a shilling. When the lackey handed it to me I found that his mistress’s magnificent donation was halfpenny. I now retired to a secluded spot to count my winnings. These amounted to six shillings and two-pence-halfpenny, it was only twenty minutes past five. The penny roll had done the trick.

    Here comes the tutting and head shaking.

    There are very many sympathetic ladies in London who will not allow man to eat a muddy bit of bread tore their eyes without proffering him some assistance. I had fairly won the bet, and I had won, too, without resorting to any device other than those in the regular practice of professional mendicants.

    And a canter to the moral high ground.

    The receipts of my day’s begging have gone to charity.

    Any other wealthy folks dressing up as beggars: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beach came here from the Holmes short story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’.

    St James Gazette, Nov 1889.